Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 991
In Henry James’s The Ambassadors, plot is minimal; the story line consists simply in Mrs. Newsome’s sending Lambert Strether to Europe to bring home her son, Chad. The important action is psychological rather than physical; the crucial activities are thought and conversation. The pace of the novel is slow. Events unfold as they do in life: in their own good time. Because of these qualities, James’s work demands certain responses from the reader, who must not expect boisterous action, shocking or violent occurrences, sensational coincidences, quickly mounting suspense, or breathtaking climaxes: These devices have no place in a Henry James novel. Rather, the reader must bring to the work a sensitivity to problems of conscience, an appreciation of the meaning beneath manners, and an awareness of the intricacies of human relationships. Finally, and of the utmost importance, the reader must be patient; the power of a novel like The Ambassadors is only revealed quietly and without haste. This is why, perhaps more than any other modern author, James requires rereading—not merely because of the complexity of his style, but also because the richly layered texture of his prose contains a multiplicity of meanings, a wealth of subtle shadings.
In The Ambassadors, which James considered his masterpiece, this subtlety and complexity are partially the result of his perfection of the technique for handling point of view. Departing from traditional use of the omniscient narrator, James experiments extensively with the limited point of view, exploring the device to discover what advantages it might have. He finds that what is lost in panoramic scope and comprehensiveness, the limited viewpoint more than compensates for in focus, concentration, and intensity. It is a technique perfectly suited to an author whose primary concern is with presenting the thoughts, emotions, and motivations of an intelligent character and with understanding the psychological makeup of a sensitive mind and charting its growth.
The sensitive and intelligent character through whose mind all events in the novel are filtered is Strether. The reader sees and hears only what Strether sees and hears; all experiences, perceptions, and judgments are his. Strictly adhered to, this device proves too restrictive for James’s purpose; therefore, he utilizes other characters—called confidants—who enable him to expand the scope of his narrative without sacrificing advantages inherent in the limited point of view. The basic function of these “listening characters” is to expand and enrich Strether’s experience. Miss Gostrey, Bilham, Waymarsh, and Miss Barrace—all share with him attitudes and insights arising from their widely diverse backgrounds; they provide him with a wider range of knowledge than he could ever gain from firsthand experience. Miss Gostrey, Strether’s primary confidant, illustrates the fact that James’s listening characters are deep and memorable personalities in their own right. Miss Gostrey not only listens to Strether but also becomes an important figure in the plot, and as she gradually falls in love with Strether, she engages the reader’s sympathy as well.
Strether interacts with and learns from the environment of Paris as well as from the people he meets there; thus, the setting is far more than a mere backdrop against which events in the plot occur. To understand the significance of Paris as the setting, the reader must appreciate the meaning that the author, throughout his fiction, attached to certain places. James was fascinated by what he saw as the underlying differences in the cultures of America and Europe and, in particular, in the opposing values of a booming American factory town such as Woollett and an ancient European capital such as Paris. In these two places,...
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